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Matmos Makes Quite a Pair

The secret lives of Matmos involve balloons.
Al Farkas

"We met in a gay bar," says Martin Schmidt, one-half of experimental electronic duo Matmos, of Drew Daniel, his partner. "Drew was on stage; he was go-go dancing. He was wearing a fish, a plastic fish. I put a dollar in his fish. A guy I was with at the bar said to me, 'You know, he makes electronic music, too.' And I said, 'Really?' because that's not the kind of thing that you think about go-go dancers, you know." Once Schmidt discovered that Daniel was a fellow electronic musician, he had the perfect angle with which to pursue him.

"I used a pick-up line which would have only have worked in the early '90s, which was, 'So have you ever used a computer to edit audio?'" Schmidt recalls. "It's hard to remember that, not so long ago, computers were a more rare commodity than they are today. It was kind of a big deal. And he hadn't, and he came over to my house, and I put my hand on his knee, and magic was born."

Since that fateful meeting, the two — who are paired up on stage and off — have put out seven critically acclaimed albums, worked with artists including Björk and the Kronos Quartet, and crafted a niche for themselves as purveyors of relentlessly creative experimental electronic music. They've become famous for crafting accessible, even poppy, works out of weird sample sources — the sound of hair being cut, a crayfish's neural activity, liposuction surgery, just to name a few. They're also known for marrying the conceptual frameworks of their albums to the samples they use, such as on 2001's A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, which used the aforementioned liposuction sample as well as other sounds sourced from surgical procedures.

If the way they met seems a little strange and their approach to music distinctively offbeat, the paths that brought them to making music seem positively bizarre. Daniel, in particular, had already embarked on a long, strange musical trip before Schmidt ever laid eyes on him.

"I was really into punk rock as a teenager. I also stumbled onto my parents' copy of the writings of William Burroughs, and they talked a lot about tape cut-ups," Daniel recalls. "I thought this sounded interesting and decided to get a bunch of cheap tape recorders, and I started to make primitive collage cut-ups. At the time, I did a punk-rock magazine, and you'd sit with scissors and glue and chop up the National Enquirer, and it didn't take long to jump from cutting up images to cutting up sounds. I really had no musical training whatsoever; I always made music in this sort of collage-assemblage way, since I was like fifteen.

"I was in punk-rock bands at the time," he continues, "but that kind of ended when I went to school at UC Berkeley to study philosophy. I joined a gospel choir, which was kind of a weird decision. I think I just liked the intensity of gospel performance. I was an atheist in the choir, but I just liked the way that, when we played in churches, people would get really moved and really expressive. For me, it sort of reminded me of punk rock, what I liked about punk rock. I guess it was sort of a tangled path of avant-garde literature, punk rock and gospel."

While nowhere near as radical, Schmidt's path was unusually serendipitous in its own right. As a teenage fan of electronic artists such as Brian Eno, Klaus Schulze and Laurie Anderson, his living situation dumped the means to create the same kinds of sounds into his lap. "I was kind of a bum in my youth," Schmidt admits. "I lived with a woman who was a terrible alcoholic, and she had three sons who were much older than I was and who had moved out of the house but had left behind a lot of their rock equipment. They'd left behind like a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a bunch of effects pedals and some synthesizers. And while sitting around, bum-like, day after day, I started plugging those things in and playing with them."

Eventually, when he and Daniel started producing music together, they needed a name. Given how strange most everything else about their story is, it isn't terribly surprising that they chose a weird name for even weirder reasons. They chose the name Matmos, after the sea of oozing, evil muck in the Jane Fonda movie Barbarella.

"It's one of my favorite films," declares Schmidt. I'm a huge fan of all that — I don't know if there's a sub-genre for it — all those super-saturated color, crazy, fantastic Utopian films of the late '60s, like Casino Royale, and Barbarella, and Danger: Diabolik, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. We both love that sort of baroque but modern thing about those things — like too many costumes, the sets are too crazy, the plot is too complicated, there's too many characters, everybody's being completely camp and over the top. I think it made more sense when we were doing more techno-oriented material, but certainly my fondness for that stuff has not dimmed at all. Barbarella is our patron saint."

Matmos's latest album, Supreme Balloon, abandoned sampling altogether in favor of focusing on synthesis. Every sound on the album, without exception, was created by a synthesizer of some sort. The concept here was a playful, "cosmic pop" record, a way for the two to let their hair down, luxuriate in the sounds themselves and see what happened.

"That made it fun to do, because it was such a challenge," Daniel muses. "What do you do with something that's such a blank slate? And often the experience of making the songs was sort of like when you see a face in the clouds or a face in the fire. You know, when you're looking at something quite abstract, but then it becomes very organic the more you look at it — or, in our case, the more you listen to it. All sorts of things would start to emerge pretty quickly. It's a bit like a Rorschach blot, you know?"

With such a cerebral approach to music, it might seem like Matmos wouldn't be well suited to live performance, but Daniel and Schmidt have built a reputation as engaging performers who utilize custom videos, improvisational elements and a sense of the absurd to engage their audiences — sometimes with mixed results.

"People respond to our music in a lot of different ways," Daniel points out. "We've had people really love us; we've had people heckle us and hate what we're doing completely. Frequently, they tend to sort of project a narrative onto what we're doing. It's often described to us back as something cinematic. Unlike most electronic music, we tend to work with sound sources that are very loaded and that we make clear to the audience what they are. So if you make recordings of surgery, you're tapping into people's anxieties and fears, but also their curiosity about the surgery clinic as a space. I wouldn't say cerebral in a disconnected, dry way. We're often quite silly and often quite gross, so, yeah, it's not intended to be clinical — even when it's surgical."

Schmidt promises something special for Colorado audiences. "We try to make a show out of it," he says. "I've made a lot of videos, and we'll be doing pieces from The West, which is a CD of ours that's been out of print for eight years. We're going to add a bunch of stuff for the Colorado show, because we've never played there before."

Outside of Matmos, both Schmidt and Daniel stay busy with a dizzying array of side projects, collaborations and other activities, both musical and otherwise. Most notably, Daniel recently began teaching English literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a job that necessitated the group's relocating from San Francisco to Baltimore — and resulted in an uncomfortable moment for Daniel.

"Inevitably, students now, they're all good researchers," he points out. "They sign up for your class because they want to take your class, but then they Google you and find all sorts of incriminating information. In our case, there's a lot of really ridiculous pictures of us doing various absurd things on stage while playing a Matmos show, and it got into the student newspaper at Hopkins. There was an article where the headline was 'Professor Daniel Reveals his Secret, Other Life.' I was kind of mortified."


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